WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England was incredibly successful in spreading the Steelers out defensively and neutralizing Pittsburgh’s traditionally-potent pass rush in last year’s tilt, as Brady (2163 passing yards, 16 TD, 8 INT) wasn’t sacked once in completing a crisp 30-of-43 throws for 350 yards. As usual, the two-time MVP’s favorite target was slot man extraordinaire Wes Welker (51 receptions, 785 yards, 6 TD), with terrific young tight end Rob Gronkowski (29 receptions, 401 yards, 5 TD) hauling in all three of Brady’s scoring deliveries in that contest. The two comprise half of an outstanding foursome of targets for the NFL’s No. 1 pass offense (350.3 ypg), as both Hernandez (27 receptions, 289 yards, 3 TD) and veteran wideout Deion Branch (26 receptions, 2 TD) can create headaches for defenses as well. The biggest problems this year have been caused by Welker, however, as the sure-handed Pro Bowler easily tops the league in catches and receiving yards per game and has amassed 124 yards or more in four of New England’s six outings. The Patriots use the running game primarily to simply keep teams honest, but top back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (391 rushing yards, 5 TD) is a powerful and effective player who totaled 87 yards on 18 carries in last November’s win over Pittsburgh.
Brady’s greatest challenge of the season could come this weekend, as the Steelers have held enemy quarterbacks to a league-low 5.8 yards per pass attempt and possess a couple of proven difference-makers in the secondary. Strong safety Troy Polamalu (43 tackles, 1 sack) is the obvious headliner, having earned the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award with a sensational 2010 season, while Ike Taylor (14 tackles) is a true lock-down corner who usually handles the opposition’s No. 1 receiver and doesn’t get tested all that much. The back end is complemented nicely by Pittsburgh’s ability to generate consistent pressure on the passer, a trademark under longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau, and All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison’s absence for the last three weeks due to a fractured eye socket hasn’t slowed down the rush. The Steelers have produced 10 sacks during their three-game win streak, Harrison counterpart LaMarr Woodley (34 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) has been on a tear with his running mate sidelined, having notched a whopping 5 1/2 sacks over that stretch, and will need to be a factor once again with Harrison also out this week. Pittsburgh’s historically strong run defense has fallen off a bit this season, with the club allowing an average of 4.5 yards a carry, but five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton’s expected return from a shoulder injury that’s kept him out three straight game could help shore things up.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
With a balanced offense directed by a top-tier quarterback in Roethlisberger (1937 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT), the Steelers may just have the firepower to keep up with the explosive Patriots if this game becomes a shootout. The two- time Super Bowl champion certainly did his part in last year’s test between the teams, throwing for 387 yards and three scores in a losing cause. Two of those touchdowns landed in the hands of wide receiver Mike Wallace (36 receptions, 730 receiving yards, 5 TD), perhaps the most dangerous deep threat in the game today. The speedy playmaker is averaging better than 20 yards per catch for a second straight year and has a reception of 40 or more yards in six straight weeks, the longest streak in the NFL since St. Louis’ Isaac Bruce did so in 2000, and has a touchdown grab in three consecutive outings as well. He’s the top option of a deep corps of pass-catchers that may not have crafty veteran Hines Ward (26 receptions, 2 TD) this week due to a sprained ankle, though youngsters Antonio Brown (25 receptions) and Emmanuel Sanders (13 receptions, 2 TD) are both capable fill-ins who combined for 12 receptions for 148 yards and a score against the Cardinals last Sunday and trusty tight end Heath Miller (23 receptions, 2 TD) remains at Roethlisberger’s disposal as well. In the backfield, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall (351 rushing yards, 3 TD) is coming off a 1,273-yard, 13-touchdown season in 2010, but has been held under three yards per carry in three of his last four games while also missing time with a hamstring injury.
It’s a good thing for New England the offense is so skilled at putting up points, because the defense has been an inviting target for quarterbacks on the schedule all year long. The Patriots are giving up a startling 322.2 passing yards per game and have held only one team under the 300-yard mark thus far, while their 423.7 total yards allowed per week is dead last in the league as well. One bright spot in an otherwise disappointing secondary has been cornerback Kyle Arrington (34 tackles, 6 PD), whose four interceptions are tied for the second most among individuals, while 2010 first-round draft choice Devin McCourty (38 tackles) made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year before going into a sophomore slump. New England has also struggled in mounting a steady pass rush, and age seems to be getting the better of an experienced front line in which starting ends Andre Carter (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Shaun Ellis are in their 11th and 12th seasons, respectively. The Patriots have been generally solid in stopping the run even with well-regarded linebacker Jerod Mayo (25 tackles) having missed two games with a knee sprain, though teams have been more inclined to attack them through the air. Mayo was back practicing during the bye week and is a possibility to suit up on Sunday.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Pressure Brady. The Steelers weren’t able to do so well enough in last year’s meeting and paid the price. Though Taylor is an excellent corner capable of shutting down whomever he’s assigned to, Pittsburgh still doesn’t have the secondary depth to contain all of New England’s receivers, therefore it’ll be up to Woodley and his mates to harass the MVP quarterback and force him into quick decisions.
A big game out of Big Ben. As good as Pittsburgh’s defense is, it’s still a stretch to think it’ll be able to keep the high-powered Patriots under 20 points, something no team has done in 15 straight games. That means Roethlisberger will have to be sharp with his reads and take advantage of the soft spots to be found in New England’s shaky secondary.
The turnover battle. This has been the Steelers’ sore spot all season long, as they’re an NFL-worst minus-nine in takeaway-to-giveaway ratio and have forced a mere three turnovers, also last in the league. Brady has been far from flawless this year, having been intercepted four times in a Week 3 loss at Buffalo and twice more in the Pats’ narrow win at Dallas two Sundays ago, but New England is an awfully tough out when its quarterback is on point.
Prediction – New England has owned the Steelers since Brady’s arrival in 2001, and Sunday I can’t see it changing. The Steelers D has played well the past few weeks, but Brady always seems to play well, more so in Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense is going to need to put up 30, and while they may, Brady and the Pats offense are going to do what they always do – spread the field and make the plays when they need to. New England 37 Pittsburgh 27